Comic book-based blockbusters steal the spotlight

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August 29, 2008

1:05 PM

Summer movies come in one size: big. Epic tales, loads of CGI, long-awaited sequels, huge stars and tremendous budgets combine to produce films for which the posters alone are enough to draw the masses.

But in this season’s storm of whip-wielding heroes and disco infernos, one of the most snubbed genres in the industry proves the real scene-stealer. Let’s hear it for the comic book movie. It’s true: Moviegoers this summer held out for a hero, and they’ve gotten several.

More than one critic has praised Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” as a film that transcends genre. The Oscar buzz around Heath Ledger’s (“Brokeback Mountain”) performance alone confirms the seriousness with which the film has been received. With a script that treats the battle between comic heroes and villains like epic poetry, “The Dark Knight” teases the psychological and philosophical underpinnings out of Detective Comics’ darkest avatar.

Gritty realism meets “biffs” and “pows.” Nolan has deconstructed the myth very effectively. He’s convinced 8-year-old boys and high-class journalists alike not only to accept, but to enjoy watching a mask-and-cape avenger duke it out with a clown.
With releases like “Spiderman,” “X-Men,” “Daredevil” and “Ghost Rider,” Marvel Comics pulled ahead of DC in the film world over the past five years, and this summer began in a similar vein. Marvel kicked off the season with a bang, releasing “Iron Man.” Robert Downey Jr.’s (“Charlie Bartlett”) performance in this film shoots “Iron Man” to excellence. The movie offers a mature take on its title character, while the fleshed-out characters and terrorist imagery add enough realism to make Tony Stark’s over-the-top world relatable.

It made for a nice change, as last summer’s audience members seemed bored with “Superman Returns,” and “Spiderman 3” was just an embarassment. Perhaps viewers really do appreciate the mere mortals. Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark have no special powers, yet both enjoy enormous appeal. Though one’s a virtual stoic and the other’s hilarious, both earned similarly high ratings on rottentomatoes.com. (“Dark Knight”, 94 percent fresh; “Iron Man”, 93 percent — beating both “Braveheart” and “Gladiator”).
Attracting the Academy Award-nominated Gillermo del Toro as director, “Hellboy II: the Golden Army” (of Dark Horse Comics) enjoyed tremendous success as well. Will Smith’s (“I Am Legend”) “Hancock” capitalized on the superhero craze, deconstructing and reducing it to parodic form.

The redo of the Hulk story also made its appearance, sporting one of the most cerebral stars in Hollywood: Edward Norton (The Illusionist). While “The Incredible Hulk” did not quite live up to expectations, it drew a great deal of viewers and continued the trend of presenting the hero in a more psychological light. Finally, Timur Bekmambetov’s adaptation of Mark Millar’s “Wanted” comic books enjoyed great success as well (though whether or not this was due to Angelina Jolie’s bare bottom is up for debate). The film exploited the idea of an average Joe’s ability to unlock his or her inner hero. While it contained some clever motifs and great chase scenes, James McAvoy’s (“Atonement”) in-your-face narration quickly grew petulant (let’s not get into the unfortunate use of slo- mo). Despite its self-conscious gratuity, “Wanted” attracted large audiences and enthusiastic reviews.

Thank goodness for thought bubbles and superhero spandex, because summer ’08 offered little else in the way of movies.

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” proved the biggest disappointment. A tremendous amount of potential was squandered by shoddy construction, clichéd writing and poor acting. The greatest adventurer of all time, and his comeback is … boring? Not quite as vexing was “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.” ‘Mummy 3’ offers just what you’d expect from its previews and nothing else. It entertains but possesses nothing of the evocative backstories and character witticisms of the first two.

“The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” while better than these, also proved somewhat dull. “Mamma Mia!” certainly showed its viewers a good time, though this was due mostly to ABBA’s greatness, not the poor singing and complimentary estrogen bath. “WALL-E,” while beautifully animated and full of heart, did not cloak its agenda or moderate its gloominess. It’s definitely a must-see, but it’s also depressing, cynical and didactic.

“The Happening”— yet another dose of green propaganda — made viewers wonder once again if M. Night Shyamalan (“The Village”) really has lost it. “Journey to the Center of the Earth” was fun, but only in 3D, and “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” earned consistent scorn from critics.

This summer ­— fresh on the heels of such comic book-based movies as “300,” “Sin City,” “30 Days of Night,” “From Hell,” “V for Vendetta,” “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “History of Violence” — seems to have answered a growing respect for the graphic novel medium. And with such billboards now advertising “The Spirit” (based on Will Eisner’s trail-blazing series), “Watchmen” (the only graphic novel on Time Magazine’s 100 Most Important Novels list), and “Punisher: War Zone,” the future looks bright for our cape-and-cowled heroes.

Beth Sutherland is a Critical Condition columnist. She already has tickets for the next two summers’ worth of movies.

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